I Shall Wear Midnight: Growing Up and Facing the Stupidity of Prejudice
Anyone who knows me knows I love Terry Pratchett's work. So when my hold on his latest work, the young adult novel "I Shall Wear Midnight," finally came in at the library, I jumped at the chance to read it, diving in to experience Pratchett's trademark mixture of satirical humor, interesting characters, and approachable philosophical pondering. I was not disappointed.
"I Shall Wear Midnight" is the fourth of Pratchett's Discworld books to focus on the young witch Tiffany Aching, whose dealings with supernatural threats have become somewhat legendary over the past few books. Even though she is only sixteen, she has become a respected figure on her native Chalklands, even though it also sets her apart from people she grew up with. Also, her pseudo-romantic relationship with Roland, the son of the local baron, has come definitively to an end, as he has become engaged to Letitia, the daughter of a rich widowed Duchess whom Tiffany privately considers to be somewhat of a wet blanket and pathetic sop.
Unfortunately for Tiffany, people need witches (who are generally practical-minded people who deal with those things others either can't or won't deal with), but don't really like to admit it. And something or someone seems to be fanning that discomfort with witches into full on hatred, and this entity seems fixated on Tiffany...
Even though "I Shall Wear Midnight" is marketed as a young adult novel, and I'm sure many teenagers would enjoy it, and the previous three Tiffany Aching books are all young adult novels, this one is not, for two reasons. For one thing, it contains content that I'm sure parents would be uncomfortable with their teenagers reading about (the second chapter features a man beating his 13 year old daughter so hard he causes her to miscarry, to cite the most extreme example). However, I've encountered young adult novels that have featured some pretty extreme content before (Barry Lyga's "Boy Toy" and Holly Black's "Tithe," to give two examples). The more significant thing is that, while the young protagonists may be young in age (Letitia and Tiffany are both sixteen, Preston is seventeen, Amber is thirteen, and Roland is I believe twenty), they are all, with the possible exception of Amber, fully adult characters. This is not a novel about coming of age, this a a novel about what happens after you've come of age and need to show to others that you've found your place in the world.
Not that that is a defect in the story. It is in fact quite interesting, as Tiffany needs to prove that she is a fully mature witch. She is told multiple times that she could call on other witches for help to deal with the entity that seems to want to destroy her if she wants to...but then she would be the witch who needed help. Similarly, the end of her romantic relationship with Roland that had been hanging around in the background of the last three books was an interesting choice, as both realize that their interaction previously was based around the fact that the two were different from all the other kids around them, but that that didn't necessarily mean that the two were the same as each other. There are few enough stories that deal not with a character growing up, but with them having already grown up and having to deal with the consequences of it.
Several other characters in the story are just as fascinating as Tiffany. Of particular interest are Letitia, Roland's fiancee, and Preston, a young guard at the castle of the local Baron, because both, in great Pratchett tradition, are significantly deeper than they initially appear. Letitia appears to be a weepy foolish girl, but as Tiffany discovers she is remarkably practical minded and intelligent. Preston apparently intentionally cultivates the impression he's an idiot, in order to disguise a level of craftiness and wisdom that may even exceed Tiffany's own. Both prove to be interesting counterpoints to Tiffany: Letitia is a character much like Tiffany in temperament who has been forced into a very different role by her physical appearance and upbringing, and Preston is a sort of male version of Tiffany, full of practical intelligence and a brilliant observer of those around him.
Unfortunately, there are a few characters who felt a little underused or underdeveloped. The intriguing younger girl Amber, who is set up as a character with a preternatural understanding of how the world works, never really pays off and mostly is off screen for the second half of the book. Similarly, the first few chapters set up the nurse for Roland's father as a prejudiced and villainous creature who believes erroneously that Tiffany is up to no good, but once Letitia's mother the Duchess and the mysterious real villain of the story show up, she vanishes, and they take over the role of "prejudiced character who hates witches" together. Roland himself is relegated to being a rather passive character, only reacting to what the Duchess, Letitia, and Tiffany do rather than seeming like a personality in his own right. And the surprise cameo by a character from a much earlier Discworld book, while incredibly cool, is also so mysterious in a way that is never explained and so under-used that it just made me want more of her.
But all in all, this is an interesting book, full of both fully-realized characters and a fascinating story about what happens after you've come of age. While it may not be the strongest Pratchett book, that says more about the strength of Pratchett's canon than the weakness of this book. If you see it, especially if you liked the previous three Tiffany Aching books, definitely read it.